The Power of Storytelling

on Tuesday, February 15, 2011

We all have told them and have heard them; yes, ladies and gentlemen they are stories. When I hear the word “story” it takes me down memory lane, and reminds me of two pleasant things; my childhood and my Grandpa. Who would have thought that such a simple word could be so powerful. Imagine how the simple act of storytelling can have the same effect. A quote from Nancy Mellon states that “because there is a natural storytelling urge and ability in all human beings, even just a little nurturing of this impulse can bring about astonishing and delightful results.” Astonishing and delightful results were exactly what was seen in a scientific study that examined the power of storytelling in treating patients with hypertension.

The aforementioned study was lead by Dr. Thomas K. Houston, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts medical school. Dr. Houston stated that “telling and listening to stories is the way we make sense of our lives”, and this basic knowledge caused a light bulb in Houston’s head to flicker. He believed that stories may have the potential to improve health. What better way to prove it than to conduct a study? That is exactly what Houston did; he gathered a team together, along with 299 African American patients suffering from hypertension, and thus the study began. Half of the participants in the study were given a storytelling DVD that contained stories about real patients going through similar experiences as them. The other half of the participants were also given a DVD, but the DVD given to them did not contain stories, rather it contained generic health information about their illness; hypertension. All the DVD’s were distributed at three-month intervals and blood pressures were checked at 3, 6, and 9 months. The results obtained were “astonishing and delightful”. The participants that received the storytelling DVD’s had a decrease in their blood pressure almost, if not exactly as significant as those patients whose hypertension was treated with pharmaceutical substances.

The data collected from this study suggests that storytelling can be used to improve a patient's health. The findings of the study were of no surprise to Dr. Houston, and he plans to continue his research. Who knows what the future may hold based on the findings of this study. Maybe we will have Doctors handing out prescriptions for stories, nonetheless, remember to never underestimate the power of storytelling.

The One Finger Salute

No I am not talking about the ever popular hand gesture that is so well known during rush hour traffic, I am talking bout a brand new species of dinosaur that only had one functioning digit. It may seem a little silly to only have a single finger, but this little guy made it work. It seems that this parrot sized dino used this specialized finger to dig in termite nests for its unsuspecting prey.

Linhenykus monodactylus was recently discovered in northeastern China and is a member of the theropod dinosaurs. The theropods include some of the big carnivores like the T-Rex and Raptor species. Its bigger evolutionary cousins have the easily recognizable three toed foot that we see in fossils all over the mass media. It appears that this foot also used to be found in the ancestors of Linhenykus way back in history.

Linhenykus is a part of a distinct family of dinosaurs called the alvarezsauroids. These dinos are known for their long legged appearance and predominant main digit. While most of the other alvarezsauroids have two nonfunctional nubs where their former digits used to be, Linhenykus does not. It seems unusual that they would have lost these vestigial digits because their main digit was not more specialized at scrounging up grub. It would appear that these little guys wouldn't have gained any benefits from losing those extra fingers. It seems that Linhenykus is a keystone species in shedding light over the complex evolution of hands in this family. Before this species was found it was always assumed that hand evolution followed a linear pathway (meaning that if given all of the fossil record in tact, it would be easy to trace the degradation of the secondary digits). Scientists are now completely unsure of the actual pathway used for this family. While this little dino didn't help shed any light on the mysteries of the alvarezsauroids, it did add to the list of perplexities of this infamous digit.

Henrietta Lacks

on Monday, February 14, 2011

As scientists, we are familiar with men and women who were pioneers of the field. Darwin, Watson, Crick, Curie, Chase, and Lorenz just to name a few. Yet the name Lacks may not generate the same recognition. However, Lacks played a crucial role in the development of Jonas Salks' polio vaccine, research of cancer, HIV, AIDS, and HPV, as well as the transportation of live cells, genetic mapping, and even cloning. Surprised? You may find it even more shocking to learn Lacks was an African American woman who accomplished all of the above (and more) posthumously.

Henrietta Lacks would most likely be shocked at the vital role she played in the scientific community. Unfortunately, she passed away before ever knowing her potential. At 31 years of age Lacks succumbed to cancer. However, unbeknown to her family a sample of cells from her tumor were removed at the hospital for further analysis. What researcher George Gey discovered was an "immortal" line of human cells which still to this day amazes scientists. Lack's cells dubbed "HeLa" cells are unique in which the function of the telomerase is altered and have the never ending ability to multiply.To date over 50 million tons of HeLa cells have been cultured in the laboratory. These cells provide scientists with the unique opportunity of testing human cells without harming the individual. So, what could be wrong with using cancer cells to help save others?

Much debate arose when the identity of the HeLa cells were revealed. Lack's family were shocked to learn millions of their mother's cells have be grown, shipped and subjected to an array of tests without their consent (and even sent to outer space). These cells promoted a massive industry which generated millions of dollars for buying and selling human biological materials yet, Lacks' children cannot afford health insurance. Although heavily debated, Henrietta Lacks life is a fascinating juxtaposition of an average American and some of the most important scientific research.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic I recommend reading the book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot or visiting these websites:,

If Darwin met Jesus...there would be a lot to talk about

on Friday, February 11, 2011

  I'm sure everyone has been involved in the evolution-creation debate somehow,but maybe not so directly involved as Michael Dowd.  Author and evolutionary evangelist Michael Dowd is a pastor who married  scientist and atheist, Connie Barlow.  Together they merged their beliefs and became advocates for the marriage of science and religion. One product of their theory is a book called "Thank God for Evolution," which I have had the pleasure of reading in my spare time.  Michael and Connie travel around the United States teaching people that Science and Religion don't have to be separate topics, and you don't have to pick between evolution or creationism.  In fact, they believe that neither of the topics makes sense without the other. The logo on their van (above) is the Jesus fish kissing the Darwin fish, which obviously causes a lot of controversy when they park their van anywhere, but they were kind of asking for it.
   Because of my major and my religious background, I have been pretty involved in this debate too. I have run into some avid creationists who believe that evolution is only that humans evolved from apes, and that entirely discredits an intelligent designer. It is hard to argue with people who adhere so strictly to the Bible, and most of the time they don't want to argue with me (honestly, I have upset a lot of people, even just having this book with me). My brother goes to a private Christian college, and I find myself mortified at some of the things he learns in his biology class. Not to mention that evolution is not even in the lecture agenda. In contrast, I have talked with many people who view science in a more atheistic fashion. As a Biology major and religion minor, I have had a lot of people ask me if my courses conflict with each other. My answer is always "No" (except for their schedules), and it's not just because I go to a "religious college." In my mind, science and religion don't make sense without each other.  I believe that evolution makes Earth's designer even more intelligent.  If God made creatures that could change and adapt to a changing environment, that only makes Him that much more amazing. As a scientist, it is hard to adhere strictly to the creation story in Genesis. Afterall, scientific knowledge was lacking a little, and the story was passed down over many years before it was written down. It is said that the only scriptures that were written by the finger of God were the commandments, and all others were written by inspired humans. For me, science fills in the gaps to make a complete story.  That is why I study both.
    If you are looking for a quick to read book about evolution with a religious twist, I would suggest "Thank God for Evolution." It really does put a different spin on things. Even if you don't believe in the marriage of science and religion, it is nice to read the different theories out there. I definitely enjoy a book that doesn't argue too hard one way or the other, it is much less stressful that way and allows you to think more for yourself. I haven't quite finished the book yet, but so far I have enjoyed it.

Red blood cells and circadian rhythms

on Thursday, February 3, 2011

Do you wake up every morning right before your alarm clock goes off and ever wonder why? This is due to circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are daily cycles (oscillations) of behavior processes that occur throughout the day (~24 hours long), such as sleep/wake cycles and eating. In humans, mutations in genes that control circadian rhythms can lead to disorders such as jet lag, shift work, familial advanced sleep phase syndrome (FASPS), delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS), and diabetes. Many researchers have conducted circadian rhythm studies, including myself, to better understand the underlying mechanism of the clock. In humans, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is the master pacemaker that controls all oscillators in the peripheral tissues, such as liver, pancreas, lungs, and adipose tissues. These peripheral tissues all have their own ~24 hour rhythms; however, they are all kept in synchrony by the master SCN. In the past circadian rhythms were believed to only be linked to DNA and gene activity. However, on January 27, 2010 research from Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh was published in Nature showing there are circadian rhythms in red blood cells. The reason why this research is so significant and interesting is that unlike other rhythmic cells, red blood cells do not have DNA.

These researchers developed a unique model system to study circadian rhythms in human red blood cells and a possible future mechanism for studying circadian rhythms in other non-transcriptional cells. In this experiment, the researchers hypothesized that peroxiredoxins oxidation could be used as the rhythmic marker in cells lacking transcriptional abilities (DNA). Peroxiredoxins are a class of antioxidant enzymes that regulate proper peroxide levels in the body. In order for something to be declared a circadian rhythm it must follow three properties, the first property being that a period of a rhythm must persist in the absence of temporal (time) cues with a period of ~24 hours, the term for this is called a free-running rhythm, secondly the period of a rhythm must remain the same over a range of temperatures, and third the circadian clock can be reset by external signals. The researchers tested these properties and did indeed find there are circadian rhythms in red blood cells. The researchers also tested how circadian rhythms could be interconnected to metabolic pathways; they did this by studying the NADH/NADPH levels found in red blood cells under constant conditions (free-running rhythm) and their data supports that there are ~24 hour rhythms. They also found rhythms in ATP indicating that the circadian rhythms found in red blood cells are from metabolic origin.

As a circadian researcher this research on red blood cell rhytmicity is very cool and these results spark interest in future studies to come. This research has laid the foundation for other studies on transcriptional and non-transcriptional cells, which could ultimately lead to a massive expansion of our understanding of circadian rhythms. From these studies we can also obtain a better understanding of cellular metabolism and peroxiredoxins.

“Even a stopped clock is right twice a day” -Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Here is the news release about the research, also for the full Nature article you can find it through the Au library site without paying.